At the Carbonite call center in Lewiston, Maine, every minute an agent spends trying to fix a specific problem is tracked, allowing the data protection software company to put a price tag on each issue as it arises. Nearby, at the new Wayfair call centers in Bangor and Brunswick, customer service representatives reach out to people whose home-goods deliveries are at risk of being delayed or damaged, determined by an algorithm that analyzes previous feedback on similar orders.
The world of call centers is changing rapidly as advances in data science allow companies to analyze the troves of information collected from customers to make better products and deliver more personalized service. They’re now officially referred to as “contact centers” as more people order online and communicate by e-mail, Twitter, and Web chat.
Gone are the quaint days when calls were merely recorded “for quality assurance purposes.” Today, these centers are repositories of valuable data that hold the key to boosting a company’s performance. And workers in Maine, which has a long history of hosting call centers thanks to its cheap real estate, affordable labor costs, and long-established fiber optic networks, are finding that call center jobs are not necessarily low-wage, dead-end occupations.
As technology improves, centers are increasingly seeking out sophisticated employees who can go beyond the low-skilled, repetitive tasks of the past. Those who excel can move into data analytics, or beyond — maybe earning a six-figure salary.
“Customer service is becoming more of a science than an art,” said Paul Stockford, director of research at the National Association of Call Centers.
Despite the explosion of online ordering and self-help services that don’t require the assistance of an agent — and a number of high-profile closures — the call center industry continues to grow. There are an estimated 2.3 million agent jobs at 71,000 centers in the United States, according to the National Association of Call Centers. And several companies have moved their call centers back to the United States from overseas in recent years in an attempt to win over customers who don’t like talking to foreigners.
The work done at call centers runs the gamut, from technical support to catalog sales and all types of customer service.
At Wayfair LLC, job candidates at the Maine centers have to solve clues in an “escape the room” challenge to demonstrate their critical thinking skills. When she was hired last summer, Colette McCauley, a 53-year-old former stay-at-home mom who has held several administrative jobs, said she originally didn’t see working at Wayfair’s Bangor call center as a career. But she does now.
Nikki Pooler, 29, worked her way up from talking to athenahealth Inc. customers on the phone to analyzing customer data and is currently a senior operations manager in Belfast. John Marshall, 30, started in technical support at Carbonite Inc.’s Lewiston center and now oversees content management, with duties that include analyzing customer visits to the company’s website in order to improve it.
“The easy stuff is automated,” said Liz Graham, vice president of sales and service for Wayfair, which plans to ramp up its two Maine call centers to 500 employees each. “It’s a very different job than just being someone who’s a sympathetic ear on the phone.”
The technical aspect of today’s call center jobs and the abundance of entry-level positions are attracting young people, said Brunswick economic development director Linda Smith, a much needed infusion of youth in the oldest and whitest state in the country. “We’re really looking to the future and saying, ‘hey, we need to retain more of our 25 to 40-year-old population,’ ” she said.
L.L. Bean has operated call centers in Maine for decades, but the state became something of a mini call-center mecca after Charles Cawley, founder of the credit card company MBNA Corp., opened a center in the early ‘90s in Camden, where Cawley and his wife had a home. MBNA, which was later bought by Bank of America, eventually opened centers around the state employing thousands of workers, creating a ready-made call center workforce.
That’s why athenahealth, the Watertown-based health care software company, decided to open a call center and office in Belfast in 2008, said David Tassoni, senior vice president of athenaCare, the customer service arm of the company. The company now employs approximately 950 people there, with room to grow to 1,200.
In the past, agents had little information about customer behavior, Tassoni said; now, in a cloud-based network like athenahealth’s, “we know every keystroke.” The company’s employees get alerts when customers are using the system incorrectly, for example, and can send them tips before they ever report a problem.
“It’s much better if we’re ahead of the game,” he said.
Maine also has three times more jobs than the national average at third-party call centers, which handle customer service for other companies, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When company-owned centers are counted, there are nearly 100 locations and more than 8,700 workers, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The industry is dwarfed by health care, retail, hospitality, and other sectors in Maine, but in some communities, such as Belfast, call centers are a major employer.
Carbonite moved its call operations from a vendor in India to an in-house center in Lewiston, in 2011, and the relocation allowed the company to have more control over training as it shifted its focus from individual consumers to business clients.
Among the duties of Carbonite’s Lewiston employees is analyzing online feedback forms, which allows the company to compare customer satisfaction levels to renewal rates and to revenues. The company is also working on a way to alert agents that an unhappy customer is on the line.
“We call it the ‘no-customer-left-behind’ initiative,” said Robert Frost, vice president of customer care. “There isn’t a piece of data that goes unused.”
Argo Marketing Group opened a center in Lewiston in 2008, in response to the growing demand for domestic customer service agents. Argo’s 400 employees handle customer support for 65 outside companies, and it recently started using artificial intelligence to boost the revenues of those clients.
Argo’s system searches recorded phone calls for key words, then looks for other phrases frequently associated with that term to pinpoint a problem. When a home exercise equipment company asked Argo to find out why so many people were requesting a refund on one of its products, Argo’s data scientists found that people didn’t like the roller balls on the back rest. Within a week, the equipment company’s research and design team had fixed the problem, said Argo chief executive Jason Levesque.
The industry appears to be poised for more growth, with several companies expressing interest in opening centers there. That could help combat the loss of manufacturing jobs, said Tanya Emery, director of community and economic development for the City of Bangor.
Though she acknowledges that those manufacturing jobs tend to have higher wages, every decent employment opportunity helps.
“Maybe a guy gets laid off from a paper mill,” she said, “but his wife gets a job at Wayfair.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.